A strong immune system is one of the foundational needs of any athlete. It’s hard to perform your best when you’re constantly sick, run down, or injured. Simply put, immunity erodes when stress is placed on the body faster than it can recover.
The best way to support a healthy immune system as a runner or as an athlete is to make sure you’re maximizing recovery and limiting unneeded stressors. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Eat immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory foods.
Integrate these key nutrients into your daily routine with foods such as:
• Vitamin C: Red and green peppers, citrus, strawberries, broccoli, kiwi, Brussels sprouts
• Zinc: Oysters, beef, lamb, crab, sesame and pumpkin seeds, garbanzo beans, lentils, cashews, quinoa
• Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, spinach (and other dark leafy greens)
• Vitamin E: Sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts/peanut butter, spinach, Swiss chard
• Other anti-inflammatory options are oats and barley (beta glucans); a range of colorful fruits and veggies including berries, pineapple (bromelain), and papaya (papain); and spices such as garlic, ginger, turmeric (curcumin), cocoa, and cinnamon.
2. Consume adequate calories/fuel.
Sustained periods with low fuel (glycogen) has been associated with increased risk of illness, so be sure to eat enough calories and carbohydrates to sustain your training load and regimen. If you are running as part of a weight-loss plan, try not to restrict your calories too much, and be sure to eat a bit more on harder or longer training days.
3. Get sleep.
Sleep is one of the primary drivers of repair and recovery from all stressors, so don’t skimp during periods of higher-than-normal training, or when you’re under more than your usual amount of stress. This includes coming back from an extended break (more than three to four weeks without training). Ideally, you should aim to sleep around seven to eight hours a night, and sometimes more for athletes training multiple hours a day.
4. Minimize excess stress.
Your body internalizes physical and mental stress similarly, so if you have a demanding period at work or at school, this may not be the ideal time to kick your training volume up a lot (especially if you’re also getting less sleep!). Other personal events can have an impact on stress as well, such as break-ups, planning a wedding, and having a child.
5. Manage training volume.
Your training regimen is likely a primary stressor for your body, though often a good one if it progresses gradually. Try to avoid any large spikes in training volume to minimize potential of wearing yourself down; a common rule of thumb is not to increase your total weekly mileage by more than 10 percent week to week. You could also extend that rule to your total amount of training time (minutes per week) or any other marker of training load. And as mentioned before, be careful when returning to training after an extended period of time off (for example, more than three weeks).